Thursday, December 4, 2014

Meadowsweet and Willow: The Aspirin Plants

Salicylic acid, sold commonly as aspirin, is one of many isolated drug compounds that was originally discovered in a plant. Aspirin is often recommended as a preventative medicine for various diseases. However, it is known that Aspirin irritates the stomach and can cause kidney damage if overused. 

An early pharmacy, with many plant medicines
on the shelf.
In addition to the belief that they would be more effective because they were created by "science", isolated compound drugs also became more widely used because they can be patented, and very often cheaply synthesized in a lab. As you might imagine, certain people have really raked in the dough
since synthetic medicines were first explored in the early 1900's. At that time, pharmacies carried hundreds of herbal products. Nowadays synthetic medicines are all that's available at a pharmacy. Ask yourself: is that drastic shift really because those synthetic drugs are more healthful or more effective?

In fact, it's common for whole plant medicines to be much safer than their synthetic and isolated counterparts. Willow and meadowsweet, the foremost plant sources of salicylic acid, have been long used in various traditional medical systems for fevers and pain. They contain other compounds that prevent the stomach irritation caused by salicylic acid, and have other scientifically unexplained effects that the isolated salicylic acid cannot claim. 

Using Willow and Meadowsweet

Dried willow bark
White willow (Salix alba) bark and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) flowers can be used in many forms, including a tea made of the dry herb, capsules and tinctures. In my opinion, a tincture is the best of the three because of its convenience and speed of absorption. A tincture is an alcoholic extraction of an herb (look for "herbal extract" on the label). It actually starts to absorb in your mouth, unlike capsules which must be broken down by your stomach. If you're taking this for pain, my guess is that you don't want to wait
Meadowsweet, which grows in the wild in Britain.
around for that. Between the two plants, I prefer meadowsweet because of its taste, and its added effect of being an anti-inflammatory to the GI tract.

Like aspirin, these plants are used for pain where inflammation is the cause. Period cramps, headaches and pain from injuries are also excellent indications. It can also be used for Rheumatoid arthritis. However, as with any chronic condition, I highly recommend making a treatment plan with a larger scope. With the right actions, I believe there is hope for chronic conditions beyond easing the symptoms. Chronic headaches included in this.

I like to take a homemade tincture of meadowsweet for my menstrual cramps. When I first started to try this as an alternative to Ibuprofen or Aleve, it didn't seem effective compared to the silver bullet power of pharmaceuticals. After some experimentation, I realized that I wasn't taking doses frequently enough. I would take it, feel good for a while, and then it would wear off. 

Many people are unwilling to try herbal medicine because of their undying faith in modern medicine, and other perspectives highly conditioned by culture and history. Others try herbs, and are disappointed that they don't get results. I attribute this to a few different things, one being an issue of dosage and frequency. If you've ever taken Ibuprofen, you'll know that the effects wear off in 2-4 hours, which is highly noticeable if you're in extreme pain. If you take one dose and expect it to last you forever, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

The obvious solution to this is to take it every hour or two hours in a smaller dose. Herb Pharm's bottle of Meadowsweet states 5 droppersful a day as the upper range, so you could take half a dropperful, once an hour, for 10 hours (1 dropperful= the amount of liquid that is naturally pulled into the glass dropper when you depress the bulb). I always start with one dropperful, to get the ball rolling.

Many herbs don't combine well with certain drugs. The reason for this is that they actually have physiological effects which can counteract or potentiate the actions of the drugs. There are also certain health conditions in which you should avoid certain herbs (pregnancy being the most common). Many herbs are safe for general use, but there are some herbs one should be mindful of, like herbs containing salicylic acid. Willow SHOULD NOT be taken with Anticoagulants/ Antiplatelet drugs. Here's a direct quote from Web MD: 
"Willow bark might slow blood clotting. Taking willow bark along with medications that also slow clotting might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding. 
Some medications that slow blood clotting include aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), diclofenac (Voltaren, Cataflam, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), naproxen (Anaprox, Naprosyn, others), dalteparin (Fragmin), enoxaparin (Lovenox), heparin, warfarin (Coumadin), and others. (direct from Web MD)"
There are also some other cautions. Read about it yourself on web MD here. These cautions apply to meadowsweet as well.

Mountain Rose Herbs also lists some interesting precautions for willow that are worthy of sharing:
"Native American herbal medicine used willow bark to diminish sexual desire. Long-term, daily use of willow bark will reduce sexual desire, although it will not alter sexual performance in either men or women. Do not use willow bark if you are allergic to aspirin, and do not give willow bark to a child under sixteen years of age who has symptoms of any kind of viral infection, especially flu or chickenpox."
The sexual desire aspect is not the same with meadowsweet, but the concern of Reye's syndrome is the same.

Making your own tincture:

You can make your own tincture of willow or meadowsweet using the tincture making instructions on my blog. You can purchase both herbs in dried form here. Note that Richo Cech recommends using a solution of 50% alcohol, 40% water and 10% glycerine for tincturing dried Meadowsweet. For willow bark use 40-50% alcohol.

I make many of my own tinctures, and sometimes they flop. Either the plant wasn't potent, the concentration was too weak, or something else happened, but they just aren't effective. Because of this, having tried an effective product is important. For this reason, before you jump into making a medicine yourself, I recommend buying products from a seller that you can really count on, such as Herb Pharm. That way, you can get a standard for which to measure your own medicines. Once you know what to shoot for, making your own tinctures is way more cost effective than paying $10 an ounce, and actually quite easy.

Feel free to ask questions and share experiences in the comments.

Friday, November 21, 2014

PODCAST: Episode 4: Using heat and circulatory stimulants for injuries

In this episode, I talk about the crucial role of heat in recovering from chronic and traumatic injuries. I discuss herbs such as chili peppers, arnica, willow and meadowsweet.

Resources from the podcast:

Friday, November 14, 2014

PODCAST: Episode 3: Effective Remedies for Cold and Flu Season

This week's episode is a timely subject. I hope it's not too late for you! See some recipes mentioned in the podcast below, and links to blogposts.

Sage and ginger tea

1 tablespoon dried sage, or 1 handful freshly chopped leaves
1 tablespoon dried ginger pieces, or grated fresh ginger
1 quart of water

put all in a pot and bring to a boil. When boiled, cover and remove from the heat. Let sit for 5-10 minutes. Sweeten with honey. Warning: Can be spicy! It's less spicy with fresh ginger.

Cold and Flu tincture recipe

1 part echinacea tincture
1 part red root tincture (Ceanothus sp.)
1 part licorice root tincture

Take 1 dropperful every hour. The first dose should be 3 droppersful. Take at VERY first sign of a cold.

Marshmallow root gruel recipe for sore throats and coughs.

Post all about echinacea, a classic cold and flu remedy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Folk Medicine Podcast Series, Episode 2: Keep your Digestion Moving

In this episode, I talk more about the link between emotions and digestion. I also breach the important digestive topics of constipation and loose stools, giving key herbal advice, and other tips. Have a listen!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Folk Medicine Podcast Series, Episode 1: Herbs for Healthy Digestion

Weak digestion is a common problem that causes a lot of discomfort for people. During this first episode of my new podcast, learn about simple herbal remedies, and some other tricks to strengthen and sooth your digestive tract. This is only the tip of the iceberg, so stay tuned for more.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Secrets of Echinacea

You would be hard pressed to find someone today who hasn't heard about echinacea. It's cure-all reputation has spanned the decades from the early days in the wild west, when traveling salesman sold ointments and oils of it that were supposed to "cure everything". In fact, some people believe that the term "snake oil" came from the oil made from the snake-shaped root of echinacea and sold by such salesmen. It has also been used for snake bites.

The local native people to the plains where echinacea grows used it for many things, including toothache (it is a local analgesic... good echinacea should make your tongue feel numb), sore throats, snake bites and certain infectious diseases.

Nowadays, echinacea is commonly used for colds and flus, and other types of infections. Lots of research has been done on it; both confirming these uses and questioning them. For me, echinacea has been incredibly effective taken at the onset of a cold when I feel a sore throat or fatigue. It's the primary herb in my cold and flu formula.

My experience confirms what other herbalists have said, which is that echinacea is most effective when taken intensively for a short period of time. Unlike herbs such as Astragalus and Reishi, it is for getting rid of colds rather than preventing them. I take one dropperful every hour during the day when I am sure I have a cold. Frequent doses are the best for acute situations, because the medicine is consistently in your system. If you let up, it might give the cold virus a moment to get the upper hand.

The root of echinacea is most commonly used. It can be easily grown in your garden, and comes back year after year. Some say it's the seventh year root that is the most potent. However, many people are hesitant to harvest the roots, as it kills the plant. Though the plant is quite resilient, it was overharvested from its native prairies, and people are now discouraged from harvesting in in the wild. As with many plants, its habitat is threatened by human developments as well. It's best to buy it organically cultivated. Pacific Botanicals even sells it fresh in the fall.

Echinacea tenneseensis is on the federal list of threatened and endangered plants. Seeds are available at Horizon Herbs if you want to help the preservation of the species by planting it in your garden. According to them, it's quite powerful!

Echinacea seed head tincture.
There are two varieties commonly available. The cheaper one is Echinacea purpurea, which is easier to grow but not as potent. The more expensive is Echinacea angustifolia, which is a wilder variety and stronger, but much harder to grow in your garden.

The seeds are, in fact, the most potent part of the plant. However, they are less often used. Echinacea has spiky seed heads that start flat and grow into cones as the flower matures. That's where the name "coneflower" comes from. These seed heads are also potent medicine, immature or mature.  On some varieties the seed heads can get huge! I like to harvest them when they get large, before they start turning black at the end of the season. I chop them up and tincture them, blending them in with the alcohol in my blender.

Cold and Flu Tincture
(formula from Stephen Harrod Buhner)

1 part echinacea seed top tincture
1 part red root tincture
1 part licorice root tincture

Red root makes lymph more efficient at processing immune system waste. This is helpful during a cold, because it prevents waste from backing up and causing swelling in lymph glands. Licorice root is also an antiviral herb, which decreases swelling and thins mucous. Combined with Echinacea, which encourages the proliferation of white blood cells, they make a great immune formula. This is effective at fighting viral colds, as well as bacterial colds, because they simply make your immune system more efficient. I've used it against so many colds with success that I'll never use anything else.

One last thing; echinacea won't work for someone whose innate immune system is compromised, because there is nothing to stimulate. So, if you're on chemo drugs or you have a weakened immune state, try something else!

Dosage: Take 2 droppersful every 2 hours at the first sign of a cold or flu. Consistency is important. If you were to take it only twice during the day, you will not benefit.

Hawthorn Berry Mania

Hawthorn's three stages of
harvestable growth
Did you know that the Mayflower was named after the Hawthorn tree? The Romans placed leaves of hawthorn in baby cradles to ward off evil spirits. In Ireland, it’s bad luck to cut down a Hawthorn tree.

It is yet again that magical time of year when hawthorn boughs bend with deep red berries. “Haw” is the name for the seedy berries, and “thorn” is for the half-inch thorns lurking beneath the leaves. Well named indeed. If you’re into folklore and stories, check out GuidoMasé’s article about Hawthorn

I have written a post about Hawthorn already, including my recipe for the Hawthorn Berry Chutney that I make every year, which pairs wonderfully with chicken and pork. This evening, we devoured an appetizer plate filled with pepper-rosemary chicken, chevre, fuji apples and hawthorn chutney. Delicious. That post also includes some information about identifying and picking hawthorn in the wild.

People these days are getting their knickers in a knot about all these exotic foreign "superfoods". There is a notion that the more exotic it is, and the more expensive it is, the more miraculous it is! This is a psychological phenomenon that some people are taking massive advantage of. Rather than paying an arm and a leg for Goji berries, which could be cultivated next to a nuclear plant in China for all you know, try our local superfood: hawthorn berries! Studies conducted with hawthorn have shown it to allow blood to flow more freely to the heart, and to help a damaged heart pump more efficiently. Eating the prepared berries throughout the winter is a fantastic health tonic.
Removing leaves from stems from the berries.

This post is focused on the berries due to the season, but the spring flowers and leaves have a stronger medicinal action. Deborah Frances writes in detail about Hawthorn in her book “Practical Wisdom in Natural Healing”, reporting success using hawthorn in cases of acute allergic response in her patients. She also uses it energetically for opening the heart, and recovering from grief.

I think that the berries are best prepared as a food, rather than in a tincture or in capsules. They are not great raw or unsweetened. I’m a big fan of the chutney, and jams and jellies of it are also fantastic (a jam has bits, a jelly is clear). The following recipes are low-sugar, freezer jams. Low sugar is ideal not only for your health, but because it lets the hawthorn flavor out.

Hawthorn Berry Freezer Jam (sweetened with honey)
Makes 4, 8 oz jars of jam
Mashing the cooking berries with a potato masher.

Hawthorne jelly is more common, but a jam is great because it gets more of the actual pulp from the fruit that contains good medicine. Its taste is more intense, and its texture thicker. A totally different experience.

8 cups fresh/ frozen hawthorn berries, (washed and stems removed)
3 cups water
2 Tbsp lemon juice (helps gel and maintains color)
1 heaping tablespoon low sugar pectin*
1-2 cups raw honey

In a large pot, put berries, lemon juice and water. Bring to a gentle boil on medium heat, then reduce to a simmer and simmer for an hour, mashing with a potato masher if you have one. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes or so.

With a hand cranking food mill, on the finest setting, add the pulp in batches. Use a spatula to scrape strained red mixture off the bottom of the food mill, and discard the seeds from the hopper after each batch. Alternatively, you could blend the mixture briefly (in batches) in your blender, and press it by hand through a metal strainer. In any case, your goal is to remove seeds and extraneous stems. I actually used the food mill, and THEN I used the hand strainer, as there were some stems that still made it through the mill.

Once you have your strained berries, get it back into a saucepan on Medium high heat. Stir in the pectin with a wooden spoon, and bring to a boil that cannot be stirred down. Vigorous bubbling! Maintain that, stirring enthusiastically, for about 30 seconds. Remove from heat, stir in the honey, and pour into the awaiting jars. Let the jars sit for about 12 hours, and then put them in the fridge or freezer. In the fridge, it will keep for a month or more, and for much longer in the freezer. Because this is a low sugar recipe, be sure you know what you’re doing before you preserve it.

Hawthorn Berry Freezer Jelly (sweetened with sugar)
Makes 4, 8 oz jars of jelly
Hawthorn berry jelly,  ready to eat!

For the recipe below, I used the leftover seedy pulp from the above recipe. There was still quite a lot of good stuff left, and so I added more water and simmered it for about 30 minutes, then strained it with a flannel cloth (cheesecloth would be fine). You could easily use 3 cups fresh berries, simmered in 4 cups of water for an hour and mashed, and then put through a cloth to make the juice.

3 cups strained hawthorn berry juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons low sugar pectin*
1.5 cups sugar (or more if you like it sweet)

Heat juice on stove until steaming hot. Whisk in the fruit pectin and continue to whisk. Bring to a boil that can’t be stirred down and stir vigorously to avoid burning for 30 seconds or so. Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Turn heat down, put back on heat, and heat for a minute while stirring. Fill clean 8 oz mason jars. Let sit out for 24 hours to set, put in either the refrigerator or freezer.

* Low sugar pectin should be used when using honey, no sweetener, or less than 55 percent sugar in a recipe. Regular pectin needs white sugar at 55%+, which is a lot of white sugar!

Please comment or email me if you have any questions! If you’re having trouble commenting, please let me know and I will attempt to fix the problem.